Cathay Pacific in-flight service.

Business class on Cathay Pacific.

Cathay Pacific’s lounge at Hong Kong International Airport.

Throughout the last year Cathay Pacific has been working on a subtle yet significant brand overhaul that has touched everything from its livery to its lounges.

Toby Smith, General Manager, Product, Cathay Pacific, spoke exclusively to Skift about how the iconic airline honors its customers wishes when designing its passenger product, while respecting a well-established brand tradition, and why airport lounges are more important than ever.

Smith tells us that everything about the lasting Cathay brand and product has its foundations in four pillars of brand experience.

“Considered simplicity is one of our four brand design pillars,” he says. “The others are contemporary Asia, heartfelt warmth, and joy of discovery.”

When developing cabin product, Cathay puts feedback from customers at the top of the list, balanced against its product team’s experience, and designs and selects custom components that meet these pillars of brand value and thoroughly testing them.

“It’s a combination of passenger input and our own brand design vision. We test extensively with passengers at several phases throughout the product development cycle. We get people in at a very conceptual stage and ask very basic questions on preferences,” Smith says. “We take it further once we have the seat prototypes in and there will be several rounds of testing with the same group of passengers, to see how their feelings evolve. We test new passengers as well as staff. Our directors and senior management are also heavily involved.”

If the CEO Can’t Sleep in It, You Won’t Have To

“Our CEO will spend the night in the seat and will test it thoroughly as well,” Smith tells us.

The CEO sleep tests business class seats in one of the airline’s cabin development centers, in a cabin mock-up outfitted with final prototypes.

“[The CEO test takes place] at the latter stages of development, when we’re fine-tuning it really, just to check on comfort issues, space. If you’re in a Business class seat, when you turn over is there enough room for your knees? Every single thing you can think of, really, so that, when passengers first get on the aircraft we’re not using them as guinea pigs,” says Smith.

But he tells us the Cathay product team doesn’t generally lose sleep over that CEO sleep test.

“We’ve got a very experienced group of people working on the product team and the engineering team, so we know what our passengers want. Generally speaking, we spend enough time being thorough in preparing it for the needs of our passengers. If the CEO questions something then we show passenger feedback to say this what passengers want. Then, more often than not, it’s going to be OK.”

Brand Led, Passenger Focused

The core design brief at Cathay is to ensure the cabin product works for passengers.

“For me, going back to the considered simplicity pillar, one of the aims of the product team is that, when someone sits in our seats for the first time or uses the IFE for the first time they don’t have to refer to a manual.”

Decisions made also have to pass the test of time. “That’s a key thing. It’s not something that, given the investment involved, you want to replace every 3-4 years,” says Smith. “You can’t do that. The challenge there is to ensure that it has to have longevity.”

Cathay’s team must also design a product that will fit a broad passenger demographic, with varying sizes and varying tastes, while staying true to brand identity. “That’s always a challenge,” Smith says, “[making those decisions] without it becoming so bland that you design for nobody because you try to meet everybody’s tastes. That’s where we stay true to our brand. The design is brand led but passenger focused.”

Designing From the Ground Up

Smith tells us that Cathay has invested heavily in its lounges as the next step in brand and product differentiation. This, he says, is because lounges are more critical to improving the passenger experience now than they ever were.

“We see that increasingly as an important part of the customer journey. Airports are getting busier and, with all the immigration and security requirements, the experience is not as quick or as enjoyable as it was many years ago.”

In this critical space too, Smith says, the airline’s brand pillars heavily influence the decisions made for design and services.

“In the Lounge, we want to strike a more even balance. Looking at the Pier First Class lounge, where you’ve got the foot massage and the day suite, we think this amplifies the joy of discovery and brings back the joy of travel. It’s something new and exciting that people can discover as part of their journey. The materiality, the use of the materials and choice of designer in Ilse Crawford [of the London-based design studio, Studioilse] is very much to emphasize the heartfelt warmth of the lounge design. Its that of a luxurious contemporary apartment, to make you feel at home and relaxed. We tried to use warm materials in that regard. There are contemporary Asian touches used in the screens, artwork and some of the furniture pieces. Each of the design pillars are represented.”

“The lounges, as a sanctuary and haven, have become increasingly important. It’s also an area where you can really experience the brand, before boarding the aircraft. We’ve seen to it that our passengers have experienced the Cathay brand over a longer distance, rather than just from the airbridge to the cabin to the destination. You get that at check-in, but particularly in the lounges,” Smith says.

The airline has invested heavily to ensure that customers feel the Cathay brand experience early, and will continue to do so.

“We’ve introduced a new design template which we started in Tokyo Haneda airport, last year, and then a new lounge in Manila, an expanded and renovated lounge in Bangkok, culminating in the Pier first class in Hong Kong. We’ve got lounge renovations coming up in Taipei in November, and early next year in London and Vancouver. Again, new lounges or renovation expanded lounges with a new design template, which that we worked with Studioilse also on that. There’s a lot of attention on getting that right for our passengers.”

Readying for Take-Off

We can expect surprises in the air from Cathay soon. Smith’s team has a number of top-secret projects in the works which will harmonies with its lounge programs. The airline’s new A350XWBs are already in production in the hangar in Toulouse.

When we recently visited Airbus, we saw only hints of Cathay’s understated and elegant livery. Smith was guarded on the details of their A350XWB cabin program, but said the airline aims to capitalize on the strengths of that aircraft to give its customers a unique flying experience.

“One of the things we noticed was the quietness of it. That’s a very significant passenger benefit. Also, the additional width of the aircraft and the sides being less curved at the point where the passenger seat joins the walls of the aircraft does lend more space to that side,” says Smith. “There are number of different passenger benefits that will come with the A350, outside of the great opportunity to our passengers to increase capacity on some routes or start new routes with the aircraft.”

The Secret to Lasting Brand Value

Smith’s take on building a lasting brand for Cathay goes beyond the hard-product his team develops.

“It’s about product overall. It’s the hard product and the overall passenger proposition,” Smith tells us.

When it comes to positioning a brand, he says, nothing beats the power of people.

“A key differentiation for us is our cabin crew,” he says. “It’s much, much harder for airlines to replicate that. The combination of the service and the hard product enables Cathay to maintain its differentiation.”

Photo Credit: Cathay Pacific's in-flight service. Cathay Pacific